Michel Nischan, President/CEO of Wholesome Wave, is the son the son of displaced farmers and grew up with great appreciation for sustainable agriculture. He is the founder and owner of Dressing Room: A Homegrown Restaurant in Westport, Conn.
He has won a 2008 James Beard Foundation award for Best TV Segments for his work on PBS’ “Victory Garden” and author of two best-selling cookbooks – 2004 James Beard Award-winning “Taste Pure and Simple” (Chronicle Books, 2003) and “Homegrown, Pure and Simple” (Chronicle Books, 2005). Nischan’s third cookbook – “Sustainably Delicious: Making the World a Better Place, One Recipe at a Time” – was released this spring.
He spoke about Wholesome Wave’s programs and how they work to bring fresh food resources to all communities.
What is your philosophy about food and food preparation? How might those who share that philosophy be affected by living in storm-affected areas like Florida?
I believe that when food – the growing, the preparing, the accessibility – can be kept as close to home as possible, it creates true food security, which comes when there’s commercial farms, there’s urban farms; there’s food nearby, close to the land. My belief is that when food comes from multiple sources, no matter what happens; if a system fails in one place, it will work in another.
I don’t really have a philosophy of food, but it should come from within 150 miles of where’s someone is, in-season. That way, you get the freshest food and keep dollars within the local community. It’s not in a distribution system taking 80 cents out of every dollar. Culturally speaking, when it happens closer to home, food is richer, fresher. It creates a kind of community that’s rare.
It’s not just because I’m a chef; I come from a farming background, and that’s how the communities were – they backed each other up. It was based around the food. … I believe food is an important part of vibrant neighborhoods and communities. Storms are so random. … One of the first things to happen is infrastructure can be so damaged, you can’t get trucks [with supplies] in fast enough. Florida is set up as an export agricultural state; we helped open the first local produce-only markets in Miami. Most produce leaves – if people are growing a greater percentage of locally-sold crops -when disaster strikes on that basis, you have food before it’s clear and trucks can come through.
I’m a huge proponent of box gardens, personal gardening. Someone’s food is going to survive. In hurricane regions, food production contingencies … are very important.
Can you tell me about bringing the Double Value Coupon Program to a Miami farmers’ market – what drew Wholesome Wave to partner with that community?
Michael [Schwartz] did, actually. We’re now this year in 18 states, with more than 60 organizations, operating at 150-175 farmers’ markets in a variety of communities. The local people are the reason we’ve been able to grow – if we were going into Miami our own to set something up, we don’t know what community’s in the most need.
Human Services Coalition has dealt with issues in this community. When Michael introduced me to the community, I started visiting. Jackie Sayet helped identify it because of Overtown’s community. They now have four urban garden plots – it’s like a little Garden of Eden in one of Miami’s most underserved communities.
Are there unique barriers for residents in economically poor communities that lie in storm zones?
Florida is unique – it’s the only state in the country that we’ve worked in where the majority of farmers’ markets are selling from for-profit organizations. They’re reselling imported produce, some from California or Mexico. They offer a wide variety of things, including the food, but very little of the fruits and vegetables are from Florida. Most Californians have agreements with locally-owned farms. That was a head-scratcher for us because California works intra-state as well. From my perspective – and it’s theoretic because I don’t pretend to know how the state is set up for emergencies – it’s been very different to do things. It seems like common sense that if there was more local food, even if four hurricanes struck, it wouldn’t wipe out all the agriculture.
When you look at the immediate need of food relief, what you want to do is make food more available to the local community. Outside of the cities, there’s a decent amount of land that could be planned to serve people in need. I’m not sure anyone in the area is looking at the need in that way.
How can people incorporate green ingredients in cooking during emergencies?
They should absolutely try to grow their own garden. Things grow really fast there, and a hurricane will absolutely destroy any planted land. In the outskirts, if they’ve lost power and lost water, trees are down – if they have a garden, they have food.
When you look at the price of organic fruit – in-season, it’s cheaper than buying non-organic out of season. So buy it in season – four or five flats – and freeze it. Strawberries can become jams. If the food is planted locally, you can absolutely subsist – radishes, lettuce, beans.
Can you share any personal experiences you’ve had with major storms? How has the aftermath of the storm affected your or others’ access to green foods?
I grew up in the Midwest, and my mom would always have these things ready. She was always over-prepared. We’re lucky we didn’t have to deal with [tornadoes and other storms], but if we did, I’m sure people would be coming from all over the neighborhood to our house. If you are generally freezing food and want to be able to cook it, you have to have those means.
My family we would have been really good for four days to a week.